”Benny G the clown”, painted on the Israel's Apartheid Wall, referencing Ben Gurion, first prime minister of Israel.
Lara Chamas is a Melbourne based Lebanese-Australian artist, focusing on political art. She has recently returned from a visit to Palestine and spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Chris Peterson about the trip. You can see her work on Instragram, @lara_chamas_artist or on Facebook at lara.c.artist.
What made you want to visit Palestine? Which parts did you visit?
The most important thing to me is justice. I wanted to visit Palestine to be able to fully grasp the injustice, and hopefully spread awareness, facts, and stories I learned during my trip. I am an artist studying my honours in fine art. My work is political in nature and I intend to spread my message visually, so it can reach as many people as possible.
I thought it hypocritical to be speaking and advocating for freedom when I have never experienced what it is like to be occupied. When the opportunity presented itself to go on exchange to the International Academy of Art Palestine, I didn't think twice before accepting.
I was in Palestine for three weeks. I was studying in Ramallah, a self-proclaimed bubble from the occupation. I also visited Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Hebron.
Did you see much of the art in West Bank?
During my time at the academy, I was surrounded by contemporary art. I saw a few exhibitions and was able to be featured in one. Contemporary art is slowly making its mark on modern parts of Palestine, like Ramallah and Jerusalem. The standard is impeccable, much like contemporary art in Australia, but the content is almost always about the Palestinian struggle.
More interestingly, there is street art everywhere in Ramallah and Bethlehem, both of which are not heavily militarised. Ramallah’s street art ranged from the Israeli flag painted on garbage tips, “free Palestine” and Palestinian flags, to highly detailed portraits and murals of people who have died, or historical figures such as Yasser Arafat.
In Bethlehem there is the same, but much less quantity, additionally there is a lot of biblical street art.
What is everyday life like in the West Bank?
It is different in different parts. Ramallah is very free, people wake up, go to work or school, many children work instead of study. You have a big lunch with your family around 4pm as your main meal, have a light dinner around 10pm and go to bed for the next day.
Children play from the end of lunch to midnight in the streets. Ramallah is generally safe for anyone to go around at night.
Ramallah also has a night life. Thursday nights from 8pm onwards, you will find the entire town lit up and alive. Alcohol is free flowing, everyone will be having a drink, smoking a shisha, later in the night there will be music and dancing till the early morning. Friday is a day off for all.
Bethlehem is much like Ramallah, but much quieter. Children will play indoors at night instead, after 7pm most of the city shuts down.
In Jerusalem, everything shuts down at 5pm. Generally, Palestinians fear leaving after dark. From then on, everyone stays at home with family.
As Jerusalem is divided between what Israelis call “permanent residents”, which are Palestinians with Jerusalem ID, who were born and live there, and Jewish settlers.
Palestinians are not welcome and not guaranteed safe outside of the Old City and East Jerusalem. Jewish settlers can be found everywhere, even in Palestinian territories.
Jerusalem is heavily militarised. Life is fairly normal, you can see a doctor, go shopping, all with the addition of armed Israeli soldiers every few metres, asking for your ID card, with possibility of delay and hassle.
Hebron is by far the hardest place to live. There are soldiers everywhere you look, and you are stopped constantly. Within the town there are checkpoints you must go through to get from one end of the town to another. The occupation is very present.
Also there are Jewish settlers within Hebron, in the West Bank, which is illegal. There are certain parts of the town that are abandoned. Palestinians fear for their lives if they use roads close to the settlers, such as in the now self-proclaimed “ghost town” where there is no one since a massacre by a Jewish settler in 1994. Jewish settlers are also armed, they can go jogging or walking their dog, all with a machine gun.
Hebron is a very poor area, people’s day consists of getting up and working or begging. Children are not excused from this, being hassled by soldiers and going home and staying there from 5pm on.
There are usually daily conflicts in Hebron between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, so people try to keep to themselves. One market area even is fenced off from above, as Jewish settlers will throw down rubbish, rocks, alcohol and even urine onto the Palestinians below.
It is also very hot, reaching 45-50 degrees in summer. In winter it goes below freezing and snows. Despite the heat, as Hebron is a very religious town, there is a dress code of past the ankles and elbows. Every female over 10 is veiled. When I was there I was the only non-veiled female.
I met a few women who wore the veil out of obligation and fear, not because they are religious. Oppression and occupation comes from both the military and society in Hebron.
The infamous Apartheid Wall was built by Israel as a barrier along the official border Israel claims. What was it like to see it?
The first time I saw the wall I was overwhelmed beyond comprehension. It was around six times my height. In most areas, the wall isn't safe to go up to due to soldiers and cameras, even for a tourist. In Bethlehem the wall is accessible and reasonably safe to access.
The wall in Bethlehem is covered in street art, including works by Banksy, and messages of resistance and support from tourists all around the world. I met two Chinese men who sprayed “China and Palestine friendship” on the wall.
You can't help but feel belittled and overwhelmed by such a monstrous obstruction, but in Bethlehem, when you see all the art and resistance, it gave me some hope.
Did you attend any protests or see examples of people resisting?
It was essential I keep a low profile, as I entered and exited through Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. People found to be politically active can be hassled, interrogated, strip-searched, detained or banned from entering the country. I was detained for five hours upon arrival straight from the plane, due to my Lebanese background.
I only heard of one protest by the family of journalists and political prisoners detained in Israeli prisons. People are scared of making demonstrations, so protests are rare and small.
In freer areas such as Ramallah I was often told “us living our lives, going about a normal day, being as happy and healthy as we can, that's how we resist them”.
In Hebron, I saw a six-year-old boy being cornered by four large Israeli soldiers for apparently taking a photo of them. Older people around advocated for the boy and tried to help, but couldn't do much.
People are scared to resist, because they could lose their life. I went through a checkpoint in Hebron where 11 people had been shot and killed.